Constructivist Approaches to Developing Diverse Communities of Learners Online: Examples from the MET program

Jim Gaskell, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia

Increasingly, ICTs are being used in development work to help bring far-flung learners together online, to deliver material to remote locations, and to provide a means of rapid interaction within a community of learners, instructors and other experts. The development of high quality, engaging, contextually responsive online learning materials, however, remains a challenge. The Master of Educational Technology program (MET), a joint graduate program of the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Tec de Monterrey University (Tec) in Mexico, can provide appropriate experiences and a credential to help build that capacity. In its structure and design, the MET program models a contextually responsive, constructivist approach to learning using high quality course materials and innovative learning technologies. Students in the MET are challenged to analyze local contexts and problems within an active and cross-cultural leaning community. This paper will outline some of the strategies used within several of the MET courses to engage students in constructivist activities through the effective use of a mixture of asynchronous and synchronous technologies.

Increasingly, ICTs are being used in development work to assist in bringing far flung learners together online and

Increasingly, ICTs are being used in development work to help bring far-flung learners together online, to deliver material to remote locations, and to provide a means of rapid interaction within a community of learners, instructors and other experts. The development of high quality, engaging, contextually responsive online learning materials, however, remains a challenge. Additional capacity in this area is urgently needed in most areas of the world but particularly in the developing world. The Master of Educational Technology program (MET) <<>>, a joint graduate program of the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Tec de Monterrey University (Tec) in Mexico, can provide appropriate experiences and a credential to help build that capacity. In its structure and design, the MET program models a contextually responsive, constructivist approach to learning using high quality course materials and innovative learning technologies. Students in the MET are challenged to analyze local contexts and problems within an active and cross-cultural leaning community. As a joint program between the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada and Tec de Monterrey University in Mexico, the collaborative teams developing the core course materials have experienced first hand the opportunities and challenges inherent in any cross-cultural approach.

Our stances in writing this paper are as the administrator responsible for the program as a whole including academic quality, marketing and financial management (Jim Gaskell, from the Faculty of Education) and as the lead instructional designer managing the production teams creating the courses (Jeff Miller from the UBC Office of Learning Technologies). Jeff Miller is also an instructor in several of the courses. The program is the first fully online graduate program in Canada focusing on educational technology. It grew out of a history of collaboration between UBC and Tec and also drew on the developing vision of UBC as an institution with an international focus, a commitment to the innovative use of learning technologies and a student-centred approach to teaching and learning. The Office of Learning Technologies (OLT) is charged with encouraging best practices in the use of learning technologies across the whole university. UBC's development of the MET program was a collaboration between the Faculty of Education and OLT.

The MET program leads to a dual degree—one from UBC and one from Tec. While students must meet minimum qualifications in English, they can study their courses either in Spanish or English. Of the 10 courses required to complete the program, there are 4 required core courses and 6 electives. The core courses were jointly developed and are available in either Spanish or English. The electives developed by UBC are available in English and the electives developed by Tec are in Spanish. There are about 200 students in the program who have registered through UBC. These students represent 29 different countries from all areas of the globe, Southern Africa, the Middle East, Eastern and Western Europe, Japan, China and Southeast Asia, and North, Central and South America. The program is designed for teachers in the K-12 school system, adult educators, post-secondary instructors, and managers and developers of elearning courses and networks. About 50% of MET students are K-12 teachers, 30% post-secondary instructors, 17% adult educators in the informal sector and about 3% don't declare their current profession. This represents a rich diversity of backgrounds and experiences. The program offers opportunities for educators from isolated communities and populous urban areas to come together online and engage with each other around issues related to the appropriate uses of technology in their various contexts. One of those students is a student who teaches high school social studies and computer application courses in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, a tiny community accessible only by plane at the top of Baffin Bay across from Greenland. As he expressed it,

My biggest teaching challenge is finding effective ways to reach students from a traditional native culture whose first language is Inuktitut. Students are trying to adapt their traditional skills to Western technological skills and demands. The web, computers and multimedia can help bridge this gap.

Bridging the gap between cultures, between communities and, even, between different educational sectors in local and international contexts has been a key goal in the development of the MET program and its individual courses. From a constructivist perspective, knowledge and understanding are seen as constructed by learners and teachers working together, each contributing their own interpretations and drawing on their unique personal experiences as well as the experiences of others. Such an approach is particularly appropriate given the fact that MET students are educators who, in most cases, are returning to university for professional upgrading. The MET students are expected to bring their personal and professional experiences in education into their course discussions and activities, and in many cases, they are challenged to take on authentic problems or issues from their local context and use them as the site of their research or development activities.

The constructivist approach in the MET is quite valuable for the faculty who work with the MET students, as they benefit from having such a diverse group of students contributing to course discussions and project work. The MET students, as a learning community, also benefit from this interaction with their peers, as they come to understand educational issues from these multiple perspectives. As well, because there are so many opportunities within the MET courses for students to collaborate with one another, students gain an enormous amount of experience using learning technologies in the context of complex, focused, communicative and creative activities. The student/instructor ratio is kept to approximately 20/1 so that participants can come to know each other and discussion forums are manageable in terms of the volume of responses that need to be read to keep up-to-date. Students also work on collaborative projects that arise from complex challenges and questions they face in their daily work. They usually require interdisciplinary thinking and students struggle with ambiguity, complexity and unpredictability: the same issues that professionals must struggle with in their daily lives. As a student from Mexico commented:

To participate in the chat rooms and the discussion forums-It changed my perspective in terms of what learning can be.

One of the first core courses, ETEC 510—The Design of Technology Supported Learning Environments, in fact, focuses on different theories of learning and their implications for different models of instructional design. Students are introduced to project based learning. Early in the course students begin to work in teams and choose a project that they will develop throughout the course—one that will be relevant to their own professional contexts. Students are introduced to a learning environment in which they are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning. They are encouraged to take on the roles of:

  • Planner—defining and identifying tasks and responsibilities as well as scheduling activities and deadlines

  • Monitor—making sure things are going as planned, meeting deadlines and monitoring the quality of the products they are producing.

  • Evaluator—assessing their own, and their teammates' contributions towards the development and completion of the projects.

  • Collaborator—working with each other in ways that respect and highlight individual group members' abilities and contributions.

  • Researcher—finding appropriate literature relevant to the development of their project in addition to that provided.

  • Artist—being creative and innovative in finding novel, effective and manageable solutions to the problems they identify.

Special discussion forums are established in WebCT for each team. This is the team's private workspace. They are expected to use it as a meeting room, a place to share documents, and a place to evaluate their work as a group. Evidence of their work and progress of their project, agreements and minutes of discussions are expected to be recorded. The instructor is the only outsider to have an entrance to this room. Students are provided with a set of communication and collaboration tools: online discussion areas for synchronous and asynchronous text messaging, Horizon Wimba for synchronous audio chats with the ability to show slides and other multimedia objects, and white boards for collaborating in a visual space. Other multimedia tools are also provided for use by students, and this has meant that students have developed their projects in multiple LMS or collaborative spaces. Students come to these tasks with a wide range of familiarity with different technological tools. Some have never created a web page; others have been working in technology rich environments. As a graduate program, the MET does not teach specific use of digital tools, though students are provided with various tutorials and resources to help them utilize the tools they may select for their projects. More often than not, students end up learning a lot from their peers, as they work in collaboration towards project goals.

In this scenario, the role of the instructor is to be a facilitator of the process. The instructor doesn't give answers; instead he/she questions and guides the students through the process. In this role he/she is the:

  • Setter of the exercise—making sure that the conditions for the team to work are appropriate

  • Stimulator—showing interest and giving attention to the work of the group. He/She listens and/or becomes an opponent that challenges through asking questions.

  • Monitor of the learning process (facilitating cooperation).

  • Expert or specialist

  • Evaluator of the process and the project

Within an environment that encourages the taking on of personal responsibility for their learning and given the diversity of the participants, the range of projects is understandably wide—from the development of materials to train paramedics in trauma procedures, to train staff in safe ways of handling the refilling of propane containers, to train new sales people in how to sell trucks, to training teachers about the appropriate use of learning technologies in teaching, to a host of curriculum projects focused at the K-12 or Higher Education level. Projects developed in this course have been used in both secondary and post-secondary courses and, in one case, have even become an adopted resource within British Columbia's provincial curriculum.

Having been introduced to some general issues about the design of technology supported learning environments, MET students can elect courses, such as ETEC 533—Technology in the Math and Science Classroom, that focus on issues of online pedagogy directly related to the teaching of these academic areas. ETEC 533, too, embodies a constructivist approach in its design. In its introductory materials, students are advised that: “It is a premise of the course that learning is an individual, social, and contextualized process…and that learning is optimized when it is relevant.” Due to the international nature of ETEC 533, the course is not directly designed around a single curriculum, a specific classroom or, even, a specific mode of delivery. Students are encouraged to extend examples from the course to make relevant connections to their personal curriculum and personal practice. In the course, students are encouraged to extend constructivist approaches to the development of materials for students. They begin by analyzing and discussing video clips of teachers teaching with technology and students working in different technology-rich environments, with an emphasis on math and science classrooms. The aim is to gather evidence for the dimensions of meaningful learning and the ways that technology can facilitate or hinder this goal. The course participants then develop case studies of their own students conducting and analyzing video interviews of them. They compare their findings from these cases across cultural contexts as they each share their cases. The intersection of the global and the local is always present.

Working in groups, the course participants develop a technology-enhanced learning environment for a particular context. They are encouraged to be creative. Suggestions include designing a series of lessons that integrates a novel computer simulation, a physical space of a technology-enhanced classroom based on theories of how people learn and interact, a story board for an educational software application such as a simulation or learning game that scaffolds learning in a particular mathematical or science domain, a portfolio module on authentic assessment for science and/or math teachers and students, a professional development initiative, a district technology plan, or a series of workshops for math and science teachers.

Throughout the course, the students are encouraged to reflect on their developing understanding and skills through the creation and maintenance of an e-portfolio. This e-portfolio can be a web-site, an e-journal, an e-scrapbook, a blog or some other tool that includes free writes, "chunking" of articles, definitions of central concepts, responses to prompts, excerpts from online contributions in discussion forums, samples of trying out course activities in the student's own educational setting, personal narratives, observations, notes, memos, photos, video and links they have found that illustrate the development of their ideas related to technology enhanced learning experiences for mathematics and science education. The e-portfolio is a place to explore their own education and technology autobiographies, examine critical incidents in their reading or teaching, explore connections between their experiences, the experiences of their course peers, and the work of various authors, and develop their ideas related to designing technology enhanced learning environments.

In addition to encouraging students to reflect on their learning over the length of a course, MET students are also encouraged to reflect on their learning over the length of the program. They develop an e-portfolio at the beginning of their program in which they collect key artefacts from their various courses, independent readings and experiences and their own developing questions and understandings. At the end of the program, they select from this collection and make a coherent presentation focused on particular themes with an introduction and final summation and conclusion. These portfolios are public documents that are shared across program participants encouraging continual cross-cultural engagement.

The intersection of culture and technology is explored in several courses. In ETEC 521—Indigeneity, Technology and Education, for example, students examine issues of globalization and Indigenous people related to educational policy and practice. As colonialism has expanded, it has taken new technological forms; Native people have been uniquely positioned to both challenge technology and to utilize it for their own purposes of identity expression and political mobilization. The course raises questions about the dilemmas of cultural expression in a postmodern, internet age while surveying the sites where Indigenous people have employed computer and distance learning technologies to reinvigorate languages, oral traditions, and art forms that were previously in decline. The history of colonial practices with respect to indigenous peoples requires an advanced level of cultural sensitivity for students engaged in these issues.

As a community of indigenous and non-indigenous people, students are encouraged to discuss cultural questions such as:

  • Can individuals truly engage with another culture and learn about it without a deep self-examination of their own cultural values?

  • Can a “traditional” community person become “educated” at a university and still remain traditional?

  • Can local Indigenous languages and cultures be promoted without being exposed to exploitation and commodification if cultural information is broadcast to a global audience?

The students in ETEC 521 engage these issues in the context of synchronous and asynchronous text and voice environments. As well, throughout ETEC 521, students engage in an extended research project that they complete either individually or in groups. Along the way, as they discover useful research resources, they make entries into a specially designed weblog structure, one that allows both for individual postings within a research journal, as well as for the aggregation of the collective research efforts of all of the students in the course. This mixture of technological spaces allows students to extensively interact with one another and share research resources, and in the end, students collaborate on the creation of a resource that extends beyond the life of the course.

Another course that engages students in a critical examination of the influence of technology on culture is ETEC 540—Text Technologies: The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing, a course that in 2004 won the BC Innovation Award in Educational Technology. In the process of examining the early development of writing and the evolution of technologies for writing from ancient times to the present, this course offers students an opportunity to consider the ways in which different technologies have influenced beliefs about, and approaches to, writing and reading. Students are strongly encouraged to explore the central questions in the context of their own culture and, indeed, to explore the impact of new technologies on culture itself. The manner in which students are directly challenged to explore concepts while caught up within a large, collaborative, online space for writing and reflection is extremely powerful. Students work asynchronously within a WebCT environment, but they also take ownership over a Community Web, authoring all of their assignments in the course within an html space. Later in the course, this exploration of environments extends to various social software tools like wikis, weblogs and social bookmarking in order to give students a chance to experiment and collaborate with one another. What is perhaps most exciting about these spaces is that students engage, extensively, with the work of their peers, gaining insight and inspiration along the way. As well, it has been our experience that, particularly with the social software tools, students who, themselves, are teachers, often begin to implement the very tools they are using in the MET program with the students in their own schools, colleges or universities.


Although planning began several years earlier, the first MET course began in September 2002. That is long enough ago that the MET program is now graduating a steady stream of students. These students are taking up leadership positions in their communities and using the knowledge they have constructed in the program. Many of them recognize the value of the community in which they participated and are asking for ways to prolong the value of the shared knowledge and innovation that comes from such a community. In response we are developing a community space to be shared by current and previous students that will serve as a learning commons for the entire MET community.

There are many ways to gauge the effectiveness of a program. One of the most satisfying is the extent to which new students come to the program because it has been recommended by existing or previous students. They are our best marketers and acknowledge, we believe, the value that students and faculty place on the development of environments fostering meaningful learning—learning that integrates broad intellectual frameworks with local communities and contexts and that provides intellectual challenges in the context of authentic problems.

Because of the importance the MET program attaches to sensitivity to local contexts and the way in which collaboration helps us to achieve that, we have begun to enter into new partnerships with other institutions around the world. Through these partnerships new courses will be developed particularly relevant to these parts of the world and the expanding community of course designers and instructors will enrich the resources and ideas available to the whole community within the MET program.

These resources become available through the shared spaces that have been created—spaces that the MET program makes available through a creative mixture of tested and emerging learning technologies. They have allowed us to strengthen the development of communities of learners who construct their individual and shared knowledge as they engage with one another across time and space and who also, through their professional practice, make effective choices about their pedagogy and use of learning technologies in their local teaching context.


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